Every spring and into early summer, sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) bears sweet-smelling, two-inch wide, reddish-brown flowers. Described by some as a mixture of pineapple, strawberry, and banana, the fragrance is enticing enough to make this shrub a "must have" for people who prize fragrance in their gardens.
Dark green oval- to elliptic-shaped leaves grow opposite along the stem and are anywhere from two to five inches long and about two inches wide. Both leaves and stems are fragrant when crushed. In fall leaves may turn yellow. Interesting, urn-shaped fruits that persist throughout the winter are borne after the flowers.
If possible, purchase your sweetshrub when it is in bloom, and get a good sniff before you buy. If the flowers smell good at the nursery, they will always be fragrant. However, if fragrance is not present, the shrub will never deliver the sweet-smelling flowers that you desire. Sweetshrub can be planted in almost any well-drained soil. Full sun to part shade is preferred. Growth is dense in full sun, but in shady places the limbs grow loose and more open. While moist soil is preferred, the plants can withstand periods of drought after they are well established.
After flowering, prune to control size, if desired. Prune some older limbs back to the ground to encourage new shoots. Pruning at the tips causes multiple sprouts to emerge from the stem, making them top-heavy.
Lucky for gardeners, no insect or disease problems are associated with this native shrub. Be aware, however, that it does sucker considerably. That can be a problem in well-maintained landscapes in which plants are expected to stay in place. Plant sweet shrub in a natural garden or at the edge of a wooded area where this tendency will be appreciated.
Kinds of Sweetshrub
Several cultivars of sweetshrub are commonly available. The dependable native bears dark red to maroon flowers with straplike petals. The cultivar ‘Athens' bears greenish-yellow flowers. ‘Edith Wilder' is a bit larger-growing than the species and has leaves that are more rounded. ‘Michael Lindsey' is considered by some to be the best of the species. It has a more compact habit, a longer blooming period, and dependable yellow fall color. 'Hartlage Wine' is a hybrid of Calycanthus floridus and C. chinensis. Other cultivars mentioned by various sources are 'Venus', 'Purpureus', and 'Urbana'. Calycanthus humilis is a species according to some references.
GRIN lists five species and varieties of Calycanthus. The spicebush or western sweetshrub (C. occidentalis) is native to the mountains of central and northern California. It bears reddish-brown flowers that smell like red wine, and its bark has been used as a cinnamon substitute.
The much rarer Chinese sweetshrub (Calycanthus chinensis) grows up to ten feet tall and bears flowers that have little resemblance to our native. Two- to three-inch white flowers open to reveal pale yellow inner tepals, giving it the appearance of a flower within a flower. Flowers, which are pollinated by beetles, are not fragrant. This shrub is sometimes sold as Sinocalycanthus, and is considered a separate species by some experts.
Other Interesting Tidbits
- Sweetshrub is an endangered species in Florida, so it should never be removed from the wild.
- In areas where livestock graze, sweetshrub should be removed, for it contains a Strychnine-like substance that is very poisonous to them.
- Dried flowers, leaves, twigs and bark can be used in potpourri.
- Dave's Garden Plant Scout lists several sources of Calycanthus.
- Several members have plants to trade listed on the tradelist.